In these winter months, as the COVID-19 tunnel stretches on and we are stuck indoors, unable to enjoy familiar forms of entertainment and socialising, we might be wondering – are we even really living? We’re working from home, isolating, social distancing, all in the name of health, but is our lifestyle really a healthy one?

These days, faced with the challenges of COVID-19, you might be struggling to stick to a healthy routine. But I want to show you that living healthily doesn’t have to be difficult, sharing some simple yet fundamental techniques I developed when nursing my body back to health after a post-viral fatigue. Before integrating these practices, as a junior barrister I would often find myself working all hours of the day and night, in a persistent state of general anxiety, and unable to listen to my own needs, let alone communicate them to my clerks and leaders. I hope you can use these tools as a springboard, as you embark on your own journey towards a healthier life.

It starts with a positive mental shift

A positive mindset will assist you to make the healthy choices you want, and enhance your overall feeling of wellbeing. Here are my five top tips:

1. Change your perspective: every situation can be viewed another way, so actively look for the silver lining. You might be fed up of lockdowns and home working, but think of some positives this time has brought. And, if something ‘negative’ happens, take three deep breaths to calm your nervous system. Triggered by an email? Overwhelmed by a new deadline or a demand from a client? Pause, so that you can then tackle the problem in a solution-oriented way instead of becoming absorbed in a stress-state.

2. Appreciate the positives:good things deserve savouring, and by doing so, we can amplify the associated good feelings. A great way to do this is with a gratitude practice – take a few minutes daily to express thanks for the things you value and do have in your life. Remember that being alive itself is a tremendous gift.

3. Develop a wealth list: many things, beyond the money in your bank account, can make you feel wealthy. Defining wealth more broadly will help you to understand what gives you true value in your life, and then make sure you get it. When this definition isn’t pinned to your bank balance, it also becomes easier to cope with financial challenges, particularly these days if your billing has been affected by the pandemic. Examples of wealth in this richer form could include: quality relationships, feeling healthy and energetic, a beautiful home, and delicious food.

4. Make your home (and home-office!) your temple: our external space and internal state are symbiotically linked, and so a good way to support your mental state is to create a positive physical environment around you.

5. View food as your medicine and best friend: a nutritious, immune-boosting diet is the best way to prevent (and treat) disease, so work on developing a relationship with healthy food where you value it for its positive impact on your body.

You are your teacher

Everybody is unique, so a crucial step to developing a healthy (and sustainable) routine is to become aware of what works for you. Ask yourself:

  • What activities inspire and energise you?
  • What forms of exercise and movement do you enjoy?
  • What helps you to relax and calm your mind?
  • What healthy foods do you like? What foods make your body feel good?
  • How do you like to express yourself? Music, dance, art, writing?

Then use your answers as a framework to build your unique routine:

  • Begin the day with a healthy practice you enjoy. Meditation or yoga? (I recommend exploring different styles, because one might just hook you) An energising workout? Dancing to your favourite tunes? I also avoid checking emails (or phone for that matter) until I’ve taken the time to properly wake up and put myself in a good frame of mind.
  • End the day calmly, and practice sleep hygiene. I avoid technology for at least an hour before bed, because screens stimulate (instead of relax) the mind. Consider a bath, massage, or listening to soothing music.
  • Prepare (and eat) delicious healthy meals. If you have children, why not involve (and occupy) them, with researching nutritious recipes? Also, don’t forget eating healthily doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. My favourite kitchen appliance (I even had one in Chambers) is my blender, because I can quickly whip up smoothies, soups, and dips.
  • Take constructive breaks. If you’re not working productively, instead of forcing yourself through with caffeine and sugar, or procrastinating, take a short break to do something that will bring you joy, calm, or energy. Lack of productivity is often a symptom of an underlying need not being met.
  • Express yourself. Creative expression can be a great way to release pent-up emotion and stress. Explore what feels good for you, and make time for it. Perhaps pick up that guitar you’ve had for years but never played.

As you go about making healthy choices, avoid fixating on negatives such as the ‘deprivation’ of certain foods or the ‘obligation’ to exercise, and focus on the positive that every choice can bring. Negative mentalities cultivate negative feelings, and when you don’t feel good, it’s harder to swim against the current of existing unhealthy habits.

Creating time and space

Depending on your living arrangements – if you have children at home, or are giving support to vulnerable family members – you might feel additional pressure on time or space. But don’t forget you also have more time, from no longer commuting, or going out.

Equally, what we perceive as a lack of physical space may be symptomatic of us failing to set clear boundaries with people and with our time, or arise out of disorder in our environment. Our experience of physical time and space can be optimised through a variety of methods. Try some of these:

  • Cultivate presence: when we don’t give our full attention to each moment, this reduces productivity and focus, and similarly ‘downtime’ is less satisfying. Take eating in front of the computer: work is less productive, and meal satisfaction is reduced. Try to focus fully on whatever task/activity you are doing and divide up time for work, rest, and play. This will enhance the quality of the time you’re spending on each.
  • Avoid ‘noise’, and use technology consciously: are those news notifications blurting out COVID-19 statistics actually serving you, or a useless drain of energy? I also find it helpful to set aside time in the working day when I do not have emails open, enabling me to focus fully on one drafting or research task, without distraction. You can always set an out-of-office, asking to be contacted by phone in case of urgency.
  • Designate a workspace: if physical limitations prevent this, pack up your papers when it’s time to ‘relax’.
  • Create order: make your bed each morning. An easy task to accomplish, it will help you start the day feeling productive and organised.
  • Communicate boundaries and needs: whether it’s with your clerks, leaders, clients, or the people you live with. As professionals, always wanting to give the best service, we are often in the habit of putting our needs below everybody else’s, to the detriment of our wellbeing. But the result is that we perform worse, and perpetuate a problematic culture. I remember being scared the first time I told a leader I was going to be offline for a two-hour yoga break, but it turned out to be a big step towards a much better, more honest, and ultimately more productive, working relationship.
  • Bring the outdoors, inside: studies have shown the benefits of time in nature – particularly on mental health. And some plants, like peace lilies, are excellent air purifiers – so important when spending a lot of time indoors.
  • Diffuse essential oils: scents can have powerful effects on mood and certain oils (for example lavender and tea tree) have antiviral properties, making them great for guarding against infection. I recommend lavender in the evening, for its relaxing effect.

Living in the present, consciously building up simple, good habits, and appreciating the positives, doesn’t have to be hard. And doing so is a big step towards a healthier lifestyle. Wake up. Really smell your morning coffee, before you dive into that trial bundle. Look out the window and notice something interesting about even the greyest cloud, and tell someone special you love them. Don’t forget, that person includes yourself.